Femtocell technology primer: Growing consumer and enterprise use

This femtocell technology primer looks at wireless operators’ growing reliance on these small cellular base stations in homes and enterprises to extend wireless network coverage, and the new service opportunities coming out of their deployment.

Understanding femtocell technology

A femtocell is a small cellular base station that lets mobile operators extend wireless network coverage into homes, and increasingly to businesses, where signals are weak. A handset automatically registers to the femtocell, which in turn connects to the mobile operator’s network via a wireline broadband link. Users can then make and receive voice calls via this Internet connection -- typically DSL or cable -- and the in-dwelling, femtocell-supported cell link.

Why you need to know about femtocell technology

Industry watchers anticipate femtocell technology use in the U.S. to explode in 2011. In fact, the number of femtocells now actually outnumbers conventional outdoor cell sites, according to Informa Telecoms & Media study conducted on behalf of the Femto Forum. In the October report, Informa placed the number of femtocells in the U.S. at a conservative 350,000, compared to about 256,000 macrocell base stations. The firm estimates at least twice as many femtocells as macrocells will be in use by March 2011.

Femtocell technology use is expected to grow as mobile operators add in support for packet voice calls, differentiate based on applications and push the technology into the enterprise.

What you need to know about femtocell technology

The large U.S. cell providers -- AT&T, Sprint and Verizon -- offer femtocells via the respective MicroCell, Airave and Network Extender offerings they’ve rolled out over the last few years. The providers initially used femtocells to support CDMA2000 (also known as CDMA 1X) for voice calls, and that's still their primary use, despite new support for 3G data speeds.

The use of femtocells on an enterprise basis make itcost-effective to deliver base stations with very low power and excellent coverage through afacility at greater reduced cost.

Ken Rehbehn
Principal Analyst
Yankee Group Research

“This is critical technology for addressing coverage in places where users have a hard time getting a voice signal,” said Ken Rehbehn, principal analyst at Yankee Group Research.

Operators have kept relatively quiet about their femtocells, however, mostly offering them only by request to residential customers and largely ignoring the enterprise, Rehbehn added. “Femtocells are a double-edged sword,” he said. “If carriers go to market talking about improved coverage, they risk being positioned as having a lower-quality and less-desirable service.”

One way to overcome this would be to associate femtocell technology with delivery of value-added services, such as NTT DoCoMo has done in Japan. In essence, the carrier offers a presence service for working parents. When a child arrives home, the femtocell senses the arrival of the registered handset and sends an e-mail notification to the parents, providing them peace of mind, Rehbehn said.

Enterprise-grade femtocells mature. Because they were initially consumer-oriented, femtocells typically supported no more than four active users. But using the latest-generation chips, femtocell makers have ratcheted up the number of users their devices are capable of supporting. Enterprise-grade femtocells that can support up to16 active users, are now available. These devices also provide advanced management and achieve greater coverage than necessary for the home.

“The use of femtocells on an enterprise basis make it cost-effective to deliver base stations with very low power and excellent coverage through a facility at greater reduced cost,” Rehbehn said, noting that he anticipates mobile operators will start attacking the enterprise market in the second half of 2011. “Why not offload the capacity from the macro network to handle the set of users packed into an office floor?”

Vendors in the femtocell technology market. Femtocell pioneer Ubiquisys offers enterprise units with a capacity of eight or 16 simultaneous calls, with a power output of 24 dBm. These enterprise femtocells also feature radio frequency (RF) management capabilities, as well as the ability to create self-forming and self-organizing networks -- also referred to as self-configuring or self-optimizing networks -- for seamless building coverage. Ubiquisys, however, has mostly an overseas presence.

Besides Ubiquisys, enterprise femtocells are available from several other companies, including Airvana, AirWalk Communications and Alcatel-Lucent.

About the author: Beth Schultz is an IT writer and editor based in Chicago.

This was last published in January 2011

Dig Deeper on Telecommunication networking

Start the conversation

Send me notifications when other members comment.

Please create a username to comment.